Purdue v Notre Dame

Is Brian Kelly having an identity crisis?

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“What you say you are is your philosophy. What we see on film is your identity.”

 

Noted philosopher Charlie Weis snatched that quote from the great Bill Parcels, introducing it to Notre Dame fans early in his tenure as head coach. It’s a lesson taught often in football, one that can determine the difference between a good football team and a great one. It’s also a lesson that applies to Brian Kelly’s 2014 squad.

After watching Notre Dame’s football program backslide throughout a truly Weisian November, the Irish sit at 7-5 at the end of the regular season, a disappointing finish to a season that started with great expectations and a 6-0 start.

Now the philosophy/identity conundrum needs applying to Kelly and his football program, a group that suffered a late-season identity crisis that not many saw coming.

After dominating November as a head coach, Kelly watched his Irish close the season with four-straight losses, including last weekend’s 35-point pasting by rival USC. A decimated defense, a schizophrenic offense and putrid special teams all disappointed this team down the stretch, a full-scale meltdown that demands total inspection.

Explaining away a lost season by solely blaming things on injuries only scratches the surface of the Irish’s problems. As Notre Dame enters a critical period in the program — the bowl preparation period that should jump-start the 2015 team before spring practice — let’s take a look at the key issues that face Kelly and the Irish as his fifth season atop the program comes to a close.

 

What Should Notre Dame’s Defense Look Like?

The defense the Irish ran out against USC wasn’t the group Kelly and Brian VanGorder wanted to play. It was all they had left.

Saturday’s group included underclassmen at nearly every spot in the lineup, supplemented only by veteran journeymen that for better or worse should be buried on a talented depth chart.

While starters like Isaac Rochell, James Onwualu, Cole Luke and Max Redfield took the field to start the game, the true sophomores — nearly all playing in their first season of significant action — were never supposed to be the foundation of a unit. But injuries changed the admittedly already thin personnel, leaving the Irish severely undermanned.

At its best, the Irish defense played very good football. Shutting out Michigan for the first time in the program’s history and holding Stanford to 14 points are examples of that. Down teams or not, that’s solid football. But as the book was being written (and game tape being produced) about Notre Dame’s attacking, multiple defense, the Irish coaching staff just wasn’t able to counter as team’s shifted their game plan.

North Carolina head coach Larry Fedora was the first to expose the Irish’s deficiencies against an up-tempo attack. Scoring 43 points and racking up 516 yards of total offense, the Tar Heels did so against a defense that was still essentially full strength.

During Notre Dame’s bye week, VanGorder spoke with the local media. When asked about the 43 points the Irish gave up against Fedora’s up-tempo defense, he blamed himself.

“I just didn’t do a good job. We got a lot of packages and can play a lot of players in different ways and schemes, and that wasn’t the game really to do that,” VanGorder conceded.

He also acknowledged a key factor that essentially contributed to the demise of this Irish defense.  A system that relies heavily on scheme has a natural enemy in an up-tempo attack, because it forces simplicity to govern your decisions.

“That’s what defensive coaches don’t like. It takes some of the football away from us, takes your inventory and shrinks it, shrinks it way down,” VanGorder said. “Unfortunately, it just removes some of the strategies of the game.”

Those strategies made Notre Dame an incredibly efficient team on third down early in the season, even without natural pass rushers on the field. The Irish thrived in their “sub-packages,” a buzz word that spread in the early season narrative of this team. Those sub-packages were a credit to VanGorder, a new defensive coordinator that allowed young players to get on the field early and do what they did best.

Unfortunately, those packages also masked some of the deficiencies many had expected to see from the start. Deficiencies that came from starting two new defensive ends, both converted outside linebackers. At linebacker, a converted wide receiver was starting in his first game on that side of the ball, while an injured middle linebacker forced a first-year starter and contributor into the fray.

Pair that group with a secondary playing a man-heavy scheme that lost its best player to suspension. A unit that was counting on first-year starters at safety and cornerback was stripped to its bones, the foundation of this defense always one or two bad breaks away from being in a really dangerous spot — a reality Brian Kelly acknowledged from the start.

We saw that danger expose itself in all its ugliness down the stretch. The loss of Joe Schmidt robbed the Irish of its nerve center — not to mention a very productive linebacker. Sheldon Day and Jarron Jones took away the only position group operating with elite BCS-level personnel. Forced to play somebody who knew the ins and outs of the defense, Austin Collinsworth strapped on a harness and battled through knee and shoulder injuries to try and bring a pre-snap consistency into the huddle. It didn’t help.

All of this is a long way to cut to the true issue: At its core, what does this defense want to be?

Under Bob Diaco, the Irish had a system and a philosophy. Sure, it gave away little victories, like underneath throws. Yes, it played vanilla and didn’t do a good job of building pressure schemes. But Diaco did that because he thought it was the best way to win the war.

Diaco’s wasn’t the most youth-friendly system, either. The UConn head coach famously kept Stephon Tuitt and Aaron Lynch on the bench as healthy scratches against Denard Robinson in 2010, unwilling to trust either freshman to play assignment-correct football. The Irish were carved up by the Michigan quarterback anyway.

With their depth pillaged, VanGorder and Kelly searched for defensive answers in November. They found none. Personnel was a steep challenge. So was football IQ, an issue that comes with playing freshman, but also happens when you players are learning a scheme devised in the NFL under mad scientists like Rex Ryan.

When things are going good, “NFL scheme” is music to the ears of fans and recruits. It’s also something that players relish — understandably proud of their installation and achievement in a system that draws from football played at its highest level.

But when things are like they’ve been this past month? It’s a four-alarm fire, with the Irish unable to stop the run, cover the pass, avoid the home run or the first-round knockout.

How did USC beat the Irish? Essentially any way they wanted to.

It wasn’t only USC’s skill talent that made the undermanned Irish look silly. It was Northwestern’s, who utilized an up-tempo attack to turn one of the least explosive offenses in the country into a group that scored 43 points against the Irish.

That gets to the point of building a defense. And likely one of the largest lessons VanGorder learned in his return to college football.

“I think the biggest adjustment is how many times a college player has to see something before he solves a problem,” VanGorder said back in October. “And then once he solves it, the ability to recall and not allow it to happen again is difficult.

“They’re so young, and the defense from the last few years they were involved in to this one is so different that they will make the same mistake over and over.”

We saw those mistakes happen. Over and over.

Not just the mistakes that come with freshmen like Nyles Morgan learning on the fly, but in the secondary, where Elijah Shumate and Max Redfield are battling to unlearn some lessons as they try and learn and play better football in their current system.

Nearly every piece of this defense returns next season. That’ll include KeiVarae Russell and Ishaq Williams, who should both be back on campus this summer.

But as VanGorder, Kelly and the defensive staff look back on a season filled with peaks and valleys, they’d be wise to strip away the frills and focus on their foundation first.

 

Is Brian Kelly’s Preferred Offense the Right One for Brian Kelly’s Football Team?

As season five comes to a close, Brian Kelly’s preferred offensive system demands inspection. Brought to South Bend as one of the premiere offensive innovators in college football, the transition to Kelly’s aggressive, pass-heavy, spread attack hasn’t always been easy.

Most difficult has been finding the right fit at quarterback. Neither Dayne Crist nor Tommy Rees were natural fits. Then again, neither were Andrew Hendrix, Luke Massa or Gunner Kiel, either.

But Everett Golson’s struggles down the stretch should force Kelly to re-examine what it is he wants to accomplish with his offense. Not just through the prism of personnel or playcalling, but as a head coach, and ultimately as a vehicle to victory.

Golson’s turnover struggles can’t just be pinned on the quarterback. They should also fall on the coach calling the plays.

Right now, Notre Dame’s two most explosive offenses under Brian Kelly took place in 2011 and 2014. And both of those teams were held back by quarterbacks who turned the football over too many times.

For the longest time, the dog to kick was then second-year quarterback Tommy Rees. Whether it was lack of arm strength or athleticism, Rees’ shortcomings are well chronicled.

But Golson has none of those deficiencies. He has the arm to make any throw. The legs to escape trouble and run the zone read. But the 22 turnovers committed over the past nine games makes winning impossible, especially without a defense to bail you out.

Critiquing playcalling is the worst form of fan or media criticism. Analyzing red zone playcalling or offensive game planning — the second item a clear strength for Kelly as a head coach in every season up until now — is an exercise that’s difficult to do without the entire picture.

But if there’s something telling about multiple jet sweeps at the goal line or an over-reliance on the passing game, it’s that Kelly never developed trust in his offensive line when it was time to score touchdowns.

(That’s been obvious just about every time the Irish ran a QB draw inside the 10-yard line.)

Is the problem Everett Golson or Brian Kelly? Maybe it’s a system putting too much onto the shoulders of a quarterback?

Second-year quarterbacks make mistakes. Jimmy Clausen threw 17 interceptions as a sophomore. Brady Quinn completed just 54 percent of his throws. Outside the ND sphere, second-year player Jameis Winston has thrown 17 interceptions this season, a year after winning the Heisman with a sparkling 40:10 TD:INT ratio. A little bit of knowlege can be a dangerous thing.

With Golson the redshirt freshman, Kelly and then offensive coordinator Chuck Martin manufactured an undefeated regular season, leaning on the back of a stalwart defense and play-calling a run heavy, risk averse game. They were unwilling to let an offense beat itself after just living through it. That shows a head coach far more flexible and willing than his critics attest.

That discipline will need to be utilized in 2015. Whether it’s a reformed Golson or the upstart Malik Zaire, the formula for offensive success needs to be examined. The Irish receiving corps returns completely. The offensive line brings back four of five starters, with Christian Lombard swapped out for Mike McGlinchey in the second half, a kickstart to the future at right tackle.

With Tarean Folston set to emerge as a star and Greg Bryant a wonderful 1A, the running game can drive this offense if the head coach will let it. That also means the quarterback being a legitimate option, whether it be Golson (still the odds on favorite) or Zaire, a much better natural ball carrier.

But Kelly may need to once again recalibrate his approach to winning football games.

 

Does Notre Dame’s Coaching Staff Need a Change?

Brian Kelly has shown loyalty to his assistants. He’s also shown the ability to make changes, with the outside additions of Harry Hiestand and Bobby Elliott and the daring move of handing Chuck Martin the keys to the offense, spurring the success of 2012. (Scott Booker was also promoted from the GA ranks to take over as tight ends coach and special teams coordinator before the 2012 season.)

Kelly’s two big hires for 2014 — VanGorder and quarterbacks coach Matt LaFleur — haven’t shown the immediate impact that the last coaching shuffle did. VanGorder’s late-season struggles are well-chronicled above.

Golson’s struggles also reflect poorly on LaFluer. The first-year assistant, who worked under Kelly early in his career before coaching under Mike Shanahan with the Washington Redskins, was brought on to help improve the quarterback play as the Irish transitioned back to Kelly’s preferred spread attack. That’s obviously been a work-in-progress at best, as Golson’s been plagued by turnovers that have ruined otherwise impressive numbers.

(Some have speculated that LaFleur’s main job was working with Malik Zaire and freshman DeShone Kizer, while Kelly and Golson worked in lockstep.)

What kind of move would Kelly want to make before next season? First, it feels safe to eliminate big name hires like the recently fired Will Muschamp or Bo Pelini. That’s never been Kelly’s M.O. (And if Irish fans forgot how things went the last time Notre Dame let public opinion and Q-Rating determine the defensive coordinator, shame on them.)

But a shakeup might be in order for Kelly. So let’s look around and see where it might come.

First-year offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock ran an offense filled with young skill players and the group improved by a touchdown per game in points scored. He’s also been one of Kelly’s most trusted advisors. But another trusted assistant, former Buffalo head coach Jeff Quinn, is currently unemployed.

Quinn is an offensive line coach by trade, a position currently held by Hiestand. He’s also not likely to take a position coach job after running his own program and coordinating Kelly’s offense for four seasons in Cincinnati. So Quinn might be a move that Kelly would mull, though that could make for some difficult decisions in the staff room.

On the defensive side of the ball, it’s hard to think Kelly’s going to stop supporting VanGorder after 12 injury-and-youth-plagued games. But are any jobs below VanGorder up for grabs?

Defensive assistants Mike Elston, Kerry Cooks and Elliott all essentially learned a new defense along with the players, taking cues and radically rebuilding a defense that spent four years under the singular voice of Bob Diaco. Understanding the dynamic between VanGorder and the three other defensive staff would require CIA-level monitoring devices, and there’s no reason to believe that there’s anything wrong with those dynamics.

Special teams continues to be the one maddening constant that’s shown struggles since Kelly arrived. First handled by Mike Elston, Booker is the face of the unit, though he shares responsibilities with other coaches. A young coach who deserves credit for the tight end position and some key recruiting wins, the Irish fixed their return and coverage issues this season, but then saw Kyle Brindza and the kicking battery fall apart. A year after workshopping and looking for help outside the program, the steps forward the Irish made have been covered up by the wayward kicks and missed holds on the field goal unit.

Kelly has demanded loyalty from his assistants, and also shown it in return: Chuck Martin took a pay cut to leave and coach Miami (Ohio) and several other assistants are paid very well.

But in a year where the Irish didn’t make the type of progress anybody expected, a change could conceivably be on the horizon.

 

Displeasure is Only One Bad Loss Away

The idea of building good will at a program like Notre Dame is a bit pollyanna. Even when you win, there will be people who don’t like how it’s being done. And a loss? What tho’ the odds, that just won’t do. Even if you’re playing the JV defense.

But as the coaching carousel starts to crank up one more time, the hires that we end up seeing at big-time programs — Michigan, Nebraska and Florida — primarily consist of the usual suspects.

Barring Michigan tempting Jim Harbaugh with ownership rights, Florida looks close to hiring Colorado State’s coach. Nebraska might replace a former defensive coordinator with an offensive coordinator with ties to the school. Once again, Jon Gruden and Bob Stoops appear to be going nowhere.

Brian Kelly is Notre Dame’s head coach. It’s his first stop that’s lasted into season six since his run at Grand Valley. And while he’s built programs at Central Michigan and taken Cincinnati to new heights, year five had Kelly paying the price for earlier sins, as injuries, attrition and the NFL Draft robbed him of a senior class.

While this year isn’t a mulligan, it won’t be viewed at the national level the same way that it is by hard-core Irish faithful. But expect the intensity to ratchet up. Because after a 12-win 2012, Notre Dame has gone 16-9 the next two seasons. That’s the type of win rate that warms up hot seats, not build statues.

So as Kelly takes stock of his team’s performance this season, it’s worth a reminder that applies to players and coaches in kind:

“What you say you are is your philosophy. What we see on film is your identity.”

 

And in that corner… The Syracuse Orange

SYRACUSE, NY - SEPTEMBER 02: Head coach of the Syracuse Orange Dino Babers speaks with quarterback Eric Dungey #2 and running back Dontae Strickland #4 during the first half against the Colgate Raiders on September 2, 2016 at The Carrier Dome in Syracuse, New York. (Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)
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With the season at a tipping point, the Irish hit the road. Outside the friendly (or not so friendly, of late) confines of Notre Dame Stadium, Brian Kelly’s team hits the road and travels to New York, where Syracuse awaits.

New head coach Dino Babers has installed his up-tempo offense and the system is already taking hold. The defense hasn’t caught up, helping to launch Lamar Jackson’s Heisman campaign on the way to a very uneven start.

So before we get to this weekend’s shootout, let’s dig into the challenge that’s ahead. To get us ready, we’re joined by the Daily Orange’s Chris Libonati. He’s an assistant sports editor and football beat writer for one of the country’s premier student newspapers.

In addition to juggling his studies on magazine journalism and public policy, Chris breaks down what Notre Dame should expect from the Orange this weekend in the Meadowlands.

 

Dino Babers is four games into his tenure at Syracuse. The offense seems to have taken to his up-tempo attack. The defense… feels like a work in progress. Can you give us a progress report on the program since Babers took over?

I think the offense has clearly improved from last season, and the defense has regressed. The problem right now is going to be cycling through Scott Shafer’s players that don’t really fit Babers’ systems or creating spots where they can fit. Although that seems a bit unfair, that’s the reality of coaching changes. It’s easy to see that the program could improve after this season, but it’s just speculation for the time being.

 

Notre Dame relieved defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder of his duties on Sunday following another poor performance. Syracuse is actually ranked BELOW Notre Dame in scoring defense, rushing defense and passing defense. Brian Ward came with Babers from Bowling Green. Is he overmatched? Or is the personnel just that bad?

I don’t necessarily think all of the defensive problems fall on Ward. Scott Shafer ran a high risk-high reward system that required players to be more aggressive in chasing big plays, big hits, etc. The Tampa 2 is almost a 180 for players that are used to that type of a system. For the most part, the Tampa 2 is a bend-don’t-break system, but it appears that the transition is going to take a little while.

One of the best examples is the very first Louisville touchdown. A ball fake easily made the safeties bite and Lamar Jackson threw a long touchdown over the top of the defense. Right now, it’s big plays that have affected Syracuse. Teams really haven’t put together consistent drives. It’s more three-minute drives and under that are killing SU.

 

Now the offense should terrify Irish fans. Specifically what Amba Etta-Tawo is doing. The Maryland transfer put up pedestrian numbers before coming to Syracuse, where he’s coming off of a historic game against UConn. How is he doing this? And how big of a surprise has his emergence been?

It’s kind of amazing to watch. You ask yourself if he can top a performance, and he just did it last week. That said, some of that is the system taking advantage of his best skills. He’s been very good in space, and he’s even better on deep throws. Several times, he’s been adjusted on the boundaries of the field, out-jumped corners or come back to an underthrown ball. And when he doesn’t do that, he burns the corner.

I haven’t seen him really run a crossing route or anything over the short-middle of the field (he has run a few screens and is good in open space), but he hasn’t really needed to. What defenses could try to do is shade a safety over the top, but the Baylor-style spread has its outside receivers almost out to the sidelines, which means safeties have to shade way over. That’ll open up the middle of the field for guys like Brisly Estime and Ervin Philips or potentially expose defenses in the run game.

 

Babers was candid about saying he’d have rather Brian Kelly didn’t fire VanGorder before they traveled to New York, and that he’d prefer the game be played at home in the Carrier Dome rather than the Meadowlands. Let’s talk about this neutral site game? Is it strictly economics? Or what’s the purpose of taking this game to the New York Metro area?

I think just talking about this probably reveals this project as a bit of a failure. Playing this game in the New York Metro area was supposed to expand Syracuse’s brand as “New York’s College Team.” Syracuse scheduled high-profile games against USC (2012), Penn State (2013) and Notre Dame (2014) at MetLife, but hasn’t won any of those games. When it comes down to it, SU put its brand against a national brand and the fan splits at those games were not in the Orange’s favor. This crowd will almost certainly be pro-UND and it’s considered a “home game” for SU.

What the series has done is take a home game away from the Carrier Dome and it pits SU against a top-level program when its still trying to make bowl games on a consistent basis. A smarter series would have been to play Rutgers, but Kyle Flood reportedly nixed that when he was RU’s coach.

 

We’ve seen just about every offense score points on Notre Dame. How many do you think Syracuse needs to score to beat the Irish this weekend?

A lot. I know that’s not specific, but SU’s defense has really struggled against good offenses. DeShone Kizer may have struggled at times this year, but I’d bet he has a decent game against Syracuse. I think the Orange would have to hang at least 40 points on UND to win on Saturday. That’ll be tough if Eric Dungey can’t play for some reason. He didn’t come out for interviews on Tuesday because he was getting treatment for an undisclosed injury. Dino Babers declined to talk about the injury on Wednesday. My guess is that Dungey plays, but if he can’t Zack Mahoney will have to step in for him. Mahoney’s deep ball isn’t quite as good as Dungey’s, which could limit Etta-Tawo’s deep-play ability.

Kelly goes back to basics with defense

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 10: Head coach Brian Kelly of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish reacts in the first half of the game against the Nevada Wolf Pack at Notre Dame Stadium on September 10, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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Brian Kelly met with the media on Tuesday, revealing a few details about the defensive changes he plans to implement. And while he kept any specific schematic or personnel tweaks to himself, his comments helped clarify why he made the decision to relieve Brian VanGorder of his duties Sunday morning.

At the second inflection point of his tenure in South Bend, Kelly is once again betting on himself. We saw him do this to great success after he made the unconventional decision to name Chuck Martin his offensive coordinator after the 2011 season—betting on his protege instead of Ed Warinner, who then left to go to Ohio State after being passed up.

That’s not to say this move has the ceiling of Kelly’s last great pivot—an undefeated regular season that ended with a date in the national title game. You could just as easily argue it’s a survival play.

So perhaps that’s why Kelly was less interested in defining what Greg Hudson’s new job title means, and more resolute on clarifying that this defense will operate the way the head coach sees fit.

“He’s going to adapt to what I want to run. His style is going to be Coach Kelly’s style,” Kelly explained.

“I’ll worry about the implementation, the scheme. I’ll take care of that for him right now. As he gets more comfortable with what we have and what our system is about, then he will be much more involved in what we do.

“But right now, we’ll write the music and he’ll be the lead singer. I don’t know if that’s a great analogy, if that makes any sense. He’s going to be out front, but he just got here. In terms of assuming this role, he’s learning everything as well.”

For those worried that the Irish head coach was shirking responsibility for his team’s 1-3 start, Kelly certainly is acting like a coach who is doing the opposite. He’s doubling down, and in doing so, acknowledging some of the fatal flaws that became exposed each and every game Brian VanGorder continued to coach.

The head coach will simplify game plans, asking his young team to do less but do it better. The staff will learn from the opening night debacle in Texas, a game plan that stressed scheme over personnel, a decision that was largely emblematic of how VanGorder handled his time in South Bend.

“We can’t defend everything. We can’t defend everything, but we have to be sound,” Kelly said. “I’ll leave it at that.”

Kelly’s other major move will be developing a better rotation. After seven recruiting cycles, the roster has a deeper talent pool than VanGorder was willing to access. And for all the talk of sub-packages and defensive specialization, Kelly sounded like a coach who knew he needed to take things back to the basics.

“I can’t have 15 different personnel packages. We’ve got a couple personal packages. That’s it,” Kelly said. “There can’t be cross-training into three different personnel packages. We’ve streamlined that to the point where the guys are going to know by hopefully Thursday exactly where they fit in each group.”

With just days to prepare a defense that’s already at rock bottom, implementing any gigantic scheme change was always out of the question. But in looking for a new identity, Kelly also acknowledged some of the breaking points that forced him to make the change.

 

Even in transition, Babers expects Notre Dame’s best

SYRACUSE, NY - SEPTEMBER 02: Amba Etta-Tawo #7 of the Syracuse Orange pulls in a touchdown reception as Cortney Mimms #26 of the Colgate Raiders defends during the first quarter on September 2, 2016 at The Carrier Dome in Syracuse, New York. (Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)
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Notre Dame’s defense is starting fresh with Greg Hudson, at least temporarily, at the helm. But Syracuse head coach Dino Babers doesn’t expect the instability to lead to a weakened opponent.

In fact, he thinks it’ll have the opposite effect.

“What normally happens in those situations is just like in a cowboy movies you circle the wagons and you find out who wants to fight and who doesn’t want to fight,” Babers said Monday. “So we’re going to get an angry mama bear that’s been wounded, that’s going to be fighting and clawing and coming out with all they have, and really wish they wouldn’t had done anything and wish they would have won the game last week.”

But the Irish didn’t win against Duke. And Brian Kelly’s decision to remove Brian VanGorder of his duties after just four games leads Notre Dame’s young defense into some uncharted territory.

Because the Irish will have to find a way to slow down a Syracuse offense that might not have as good of personnel as Texas, but is better at running the up-tempo, spread attack that the Longhorns installed this offseason. And Babers comes from the same Art Briles coaching tree that Sterlin Gilbert.

So Notre Dame will need to find a way to tackle receivers in space. And they’ll need to find a way to get an offense off the field that’s run more plays than every team in college football but three.

While Kelly promised both personnel and scheme changes, what can be done in a week remains to be seen. But with the Irish offense going up against a defense that’s actually worse statistically in every major category than Notre Dame’s, finding any success on the defensive side of the ball will be key.

The good, the bad, the ugly: Notre Dame vs. Duke

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 24:  Anthony Nash #83 of the Duke Blue Devils runs for a touchdown during the second half of a game against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Notre Dame Stadium on September 24, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana.  (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
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Sunday’s move was emphatic. Brian VanGorder’s departure confirms that a 1-3 record is unacceptable. And the demise of this team was as swift as the departure of a colleague Brian Kelly has known for the bulk of his 25-plus year coaching career.

But that’s the job. And the move likely wasn’t easy for a head coach who saw himself as close to tenured as any man this side of Lou Holtz had been, and is now clearly in uncharted territory.

“I’m under review, as well,” Kelly acknowledged on Sunday afternoon. “We’re all in this together: All the players, coaches, everybody. So players’ jobs are on the line. Every job is being evaluated as the players. All coaches’ jobs are on the line as well.”

With Greg Hudson now directing the defense, and Syracuse having run more offensive plays than every program but three, the challenge this weekend is stark. So let’s move forward ourselves and finish off the good, the bad and the ugly.

 

THE GOOD

Dexter WilliamsBrian Kelly gave him credit, so let’s start there. Williams ran hard, looked explosive and flashed on special teams.

It’s time for Williams to get some more reps, even if it means taking away from Josh Adams’ leading load as well as Tarean Folston‘s.

 

Donte Vaughn. Notre Dame’s freshman cornerback wasn’t perfect—he got beat inside a few times on slant routes that everybody in the building saw coming. But he came up big and made a play, something Notre Dame’s defensive backs haven’t done since Shaun Crawford went down for the season.

His length and cover skills should be put to the test again next weekend when Syracuse’s Amba Etta-Tawo looks to replicate his monster 270-yard performance against UConn. The focus will be on Cole Luke, Vaughn, Julian Love and Nick Coleman.

 

Kevin Stepherson. The freshman only caught three balls, but all of them were big gainers,  including his beautiful 44-yard touchdown catch. With Torii Hunter unable to push the lid off opponents, Stepherson might be a better fit for the X moving forward, assuming he continues to learn the playbook and run precise routes.

 

The Weather. Looked like a heckuva day in South Bend, at least from a weather perspective.

 

THE BAD

The tackling. That was one of the worst tackling performances I can remember. Especially against a team that was anemic on offense heading into the weekend. Name a defender and you’ll recall a missed tackle.

Drue Tranquill held on to a few early, then had some ugly whiffs. Cole Luke, a guy Brian Kelly called the team’s smartest football player last week, sure looked lost a few times, too. And with hopes that Devin Studstill is the answer at free safety, Studstill did his best to make us wonder about that, too. He took some horrific routes to footballs, a difficult day at the office for a young kid who needs to learn quickly.

When your senior captain outside linebacker is getting run over by a quarterback for a first down and you’re thinking, “at least he made the tackle,” the bar has been lowered pretty significantly. But another week of “thudding” at practice might be needed—even with heavy installation coming soon.

 

The special teams. A missed field goal proved costly. So did some horrific tackling and coverage on the kickoff return that let Duke back into the game. And for the fourth time this season, Tyler Newsome flubbed his first kick of the game. (All but asking for the nickname Mulligan to emerge.)

Scott Booker has a ton of kids on his run teams. But they’ve got to get some consistency out there if they want CJ Sanders to help turn this into a positive, not another unit to hide.

 

The pass rush. Yes, the drought is over, with Nyles Morgan getting the first sack of the season for the Irish. But man—this team has a gigantic hole on it and finding any type of pass rush is critical.

Sure, Duke’s quick passing game took advantage of the Irish’s leaky secondary and didn’t let Notre Dame get to the quarterback. But at this point, every snap you’re giving Andrew Trumbetti over a kid who can get to the quarterback—Jay Hayes, Daelin Hayes, Khalid Kareem, or anyone—feels lost.

 

The coaching. Kelly raised more than a few eyebrows when he said the following, when asked about an evaluation of his defensive coaching and game plan.

“That’s probably the one area that I feel better about today. We did what I wanted today in terms of coaching. And coaching had nothing to do with the outcome today,” Kelly said.

That was likely a time-buyer until a long night of thinking, because morning brought clarity for the head man.

 

THE UGLY

The State of the Program. With the game tied 28-28 heading into the fourth quarter, one team was jumping around like they’d won the lotto. The other was all but biting their fingernails, kicking dirty and looking lethargic.

If anything set off Kelly postgame—even more so than the defense his troops were displaying—it was the lack of effort.

“There’s no passion for it. It looks like it’s hard to play. Like we’re pulling teeth,” Kelly said. “You’re playing football for Notre Dame. It looks like it’s work. Last I checked they were getting a scholarship to play this game.

“There’s no fun, there’s no enjoyment, there’s no energy. We got to look for the guys that want to have fun and play this game with passion and energy and that’s where we got to go.”

In Kelly’s first few seasons in South Bend, he was criticized for having his team celebrate victories, even the ugly ones. But somewhere this program lost track of the ultimate goal and that likely falls on the head coach to fix that problem as soon as possible.

 

Firing a staffer. Notre Dame’s head coach likely saw what many of us saw as well. But a decision like that from the cheap-seats is one thing, a decision from inside the program is another.

Follow Notre Dame long enough, and you’ll tire of thinking about the carousel that’s come and gone—Davie, O’Leary, Willingham, Weis, armies of loyal assistants who have spent years working to climb the summit. And for most, life after Notre Dame isn’t the same.

Sure, there’s Urban Meyer, Dan Mullen and Charlie Strong. But there are a few dozen others who have come to a program with noble ambitions—willing to do it right and win on and off the field—but they fail too often on Saturdays.

So as ND Nation almost united in celebration of the move, it’s worth a quick word to a fanbase that always fashions itself as possessing proper etiquette.

Few come to your office and celebrate the worst day of your professional career. Less dig into your family’s Twitter account, hoping to break a story or confirm news they celebrate jubilantly. Sure, some of that comes with the territory. And certainly VanGorder was well compensated for his time in South Bend.

But ultimately, this Sunday hopefully provided some perspective. Baseball lost one of its brightest young stars. Golf lost one of its icons. And many many more things of consequence took place—inside the sporting world and out.

But when it comes to VanGorder, a quick reminder of something that has nothing to do with sports. A man has lost his job. A family will uproot once again. And the dynamics on the current football team—where Montgomery VanGorder still plays an important role—won’t ever be the same.

“I will tell you this: Brian is as fine a defensive coach as there is out there. He knows the game. He loves Notre Dame,” Kelly said on Sunday. “He wanted to succeed as much as anybody here, but it wasn’t working.”

There should be no harm in that.